Many of us have wondered what our ruling class means by the phrase ‘New India’. Is the ‘new’ relative or absolute? How new is new?
And what are we expected to do with the old India many of us have grown up in? Is there nothing worth reclaiming?
What will we do with our political languages, our music, our films, our constitution, our art, our modern Urdu poetry, our freedom struggle, and above all our political proprieties and civilities? These questions continue to haunt us.
The excessive focus on the irrelevance of the old is puzzling. Do our ruling classes not know that ageism or categorisation and discrimination on the basis of age is considered politically incorrect? The celebrated philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her fine book on ageing, suggests that if their (the West’s) first battle was against racism, and the second against gender discrimination, the third will be against ageism.
But let us put these little, and perhaps irrelevant observations aside, and focus on the ‘New India’ our ruling class wants us to inhabit. Err, what exactly is New India?
So we read media reports on which leader had said what on the notion of New India. Who can clarify our doubts, hesitations, worries, and perplexity better than the leadership and the spokespersons of the BJP? The reports we read are written by breathless journalists who admiringly cite every word, every pause, and every punctuation in speeches delivered by our undoubtedly knowledgeable ruling class.
Yet confusion reigns. I outline two doubts here, hoping that this will spark off an informative dialogue in the columns of the Wire. I do not speak to our ruling class. Who can dare question its monopoly over wisdom? I speak to scholars and public intellectuals who inhabit a new India, and who will undoubtedly bring further clarity to bear upon the subject.
Are rights old or new?
The first attack on Old India is an attack on rights. Now this is a little bewildering. For anyone who is conversant with the history of the mainstream national movement will know that the demand for independence was couched in the language of rights. Tilak famously said, ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I will have it.’ Where would Tilak be in Indian history if we took away his understanding of Swaraj as a right, just because rights are old and irrelevant?
Tilak was not alone in speaking of rights. In 1895 a draft of a ‘Constitution of India Bill’ came to the attention of the political public. No one seemed to know who had authored the Bill, though Annie Besant believed that Lokmanya Tilak had drafted it. The constitutional draft focalised civil rights: the right to express one’s thought in words or writing, and the right to publish them without liability to censure. It further laid down that under the provisions of the constitution, nobody can be imprisoned unless a specific crime had been proved against him according to law, no one shall be sentenced except by a competent authority, the law should be equal for all, every citizen has the right to property, and every citizen has the right to elect one member to the parliament of India, and one to the local legislative council.
In 1925, 43 distinguished Indians hailing from across the spectrum of public opinion, signed a memorandum that accompanied a Commonwealth of India Bill that was sent to the Labour government in England. The Bill stated that India has the right to self-government, that it should be placed on an equal footing with Self-Governing Dominions, and that it would share their responsibilities and their privileges.
A Declaration of Rights embedded in the Bill stated that the fundamental right of every person is to liberty of person and security of his dwelling and property, freedom of conscience, free profession and practice of religion, the free expression of opinion, and the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. Each person has the right to form associations and unions. The Bill provided for the right to free elementary education, gender equality, and equality before the law irrespective of any consideration of nationality.
In 1928, an All Parties Conference met under the presidentship of M.A. Ansari, to devise a constitutional framework for an independent India. The objective of the committee was to consider the basic principles of a Constitution for India, and in particular a Declaration of Fundamental Rights. In its recommendation, the committee stated that “All powers of government and all authority legislative, executive and judicial are derived from the people.”
Foremost on the list was a right that is basic to democracy – universal adult franchise. The Motilal Nehru Report stated that any artificial restriction on the right to vote in a democratic constitution is an unwarranted restriction on democracy itself. In the opinion of the Committee, the repeated exercise of the right to vote is in itself a powerful educative factor.
“We attach no weight to the objections based on the prevailing illiteracy of the masses and their lack of political experience…Political experience can only be acquired by an active participation in political institutions and does not entirely depend upon literacy. There should be equal opportunities available to all to acquire this experience.”
The rights discourse may be considered dispensable today, but it is precisely the right to vote that has brought numerous governments to power in independent India. After all the exercise of the right won for the present government two terms of rule.
The demand for rights by the leaders of the freedom struggle was remarkable, because the colonial government had rejected the idea of fundamental rights for Indians right up to the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946. It is only then that the Plan advised the setting up an Advisory Committee for Fundamental Rights and Minority Rights in the proposed Constituent Assembly. These were the very rights that had been demanded by the leaders of the freedom struggle and public intellectuals since the turn of the 20th century. The struggle for the right to independence generated, from the point of view of the colonial government, considerable disorder.
But if there had been no disorder attending the many significant struggles against colonialism we might not have won our freedom. Disorder can be liberating. Order is the property of the prison and the grave yard. Disorder is endemic to the regime of popular movements demanding democracy.
Therefore, there seems to be nothing wrong with our political languages easily dismissed by the Hindutva brigade and its fellow travellers as belonging to ‘Old India’. Since the advent of political modernity, the language of rights has been deployed to assert that all human beings have status simply by virtue of being human. In a casteist, patriarchal society, and one that is rapidly verging towards majoritarianism, rights are the only weapon we have to speak back to a history that is not of our own making. In a post-revolutionary world, what other imaginaries and linguistic weapons do we have?
Certainly, sentiments that are independent of a rights-laden tongue, such as care, benevolence, charity, sympathy, pity, love, and responsibility are good things in themselves. Any society which is not marked by the presence of these sentiments would be sadly impoverished. But unless we recognise that obligations supervene upon rights, the recipient of these obligations is rendered dependent on our ‘construction’ of responsibility, or more dangerously charity. We might feel, for instance, that whereas P deserves our charity, and that therefore we have a moral obligation to her, Q does not evoke quite the same sensibility and, therefore, we owe her nothing. Or that Q’s status, or rather her lack of status, is neither here nor there as far as we are concerned.
Bearers of rights, on the other hand, possess irreducible standing as persons who matter, or at least who should matter, equally. That is, obligations are not attached to either P or Q as persons who belong to different communities, but to P and to Q because both P and Q belong to a category that we term human.
Moreover, is it enough to feel responsible for the poor and leave it at that? Is that all we owe the victims of poverty? Should we not be working towards the creation of a moral and political consensus in society that poverty is undesirable, precisely because it massively and fundamentally violates the basic presumption of the right to equality? Should we not, as partners in this shared project, concentrate on thinking through what a just society based on equality should look like?
It might be far better for democrats, let me suggest, to situate and to ground political vocabularies in a political consensus that persons have to be treated in ‘this’ way and not ‘that’. There are certain things that must be done for them-respect for civil liberties, and certain things that must not be done to them-torture. The language may be old, but at least it is tried and tested as an emancipatory force, unless we plan to give up on emancipation, on solidarity and on justice for us and our fellow citizens.
It is difficult to exclude rights from our political language, simply because the language of rights, since 1789 French Revolution has been used effectively to fight class domination, racism, casteism, gender discrimination, prejudice against the right to sexual preferences, and for the rights of minorities. Justice has to be wrested out of the closed fists of recalcitrant elites through political struggle.
Do then struggles for rights belong to ‘Old India’ or the ‘New India’? Before we decide let us ask Dalits, our indigenous communities, the transgender community, Indians who have fought for the right to sexual preferences, and beleaguered women, whether we should dismiss the language of rights, howsoever old it might be?
The idea of culture
The other point hammered into our collective consciousness is subjection to our nation and to our culture, a process that has been called Swaraj by our current leadership. This is odd because we had always thought that Swaraj was about freedom.
We are now told that Swaraj is about subjection to the cultural community of our nation. But the moment the word culture is uttered, the corresponding question that arises is-whose culture? The conundrum was made clear when a number of distinguished philosophers engaged with the thought of the celebrated philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya’s (KCB) in a 1984 special issue of the Philosophical Quarterly. They focused particularly on his lecture on Swaraj in Ideas delivered to students of Hoogly College in 1929.
In the lecture, KCB engaging with intellectual slavery and colonisation of the mind, suggested that Indian scholars should interpret ideas coming from abroad-provided they were relevant-through the prism of Indian culture. The problem arises at this exact point – which culture? Whose culture? I am not speaking of minority cultures but of Hinduism that our ruling class swears by. Let me cite the argument of the distinguished philosopher Dharmendra Goel in the Philosophical Quarterly in response to these vexed questions. In any case, it is impossible to improve upon his thesis on the impossibility of defining culture.
KCB used the term ‘culture’ as synonymous with Sanskritic, ‘upper’ caste, metaphysical and abstract Hinduism. But as Goel argued, the panorama of India’s past extending for more than five centuries, cannot be articulated easily within the limited perspective of Sanskrit traditions, even if we add to the Vedas the dharamshastras, epics, poetic classics, theatre, dramaturgy nitishastras, and attendant social institutions. Within the Sanatana tradition we find adaption and accommodation of varied principles and contingencies to each other, sometimes associated with the locality and the tribe, in the idiom of the universal symbols of Brahmanism, and sometimes deifying tribal symbols and practices in the structure of Sanskrit Brahmanical orthodoxy.
The ahimsa of medieval Brahmanic Vaishnavism, continued Goel, is from Buddhism and other non-Aryan sources. The sexuality of Tantric Shaktism is largely derived from primitive oral beliefs and rituals. Tribals carry Brahmanical texts in their oral myths. There is no homogenous and continuous identity of ideals and ideas throughout India’s historical experience. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is incompatible with the usual advocacy of purushastras and varnashrama principles in the epics. And though everyone invokes dharma, no one seems to know what dharma is!
The great grammarian, philosopher and Yogi Bhartrihari of the classical period, continued Goel, wrote, like Shankara, erotic and evocative lyrics even as he advocated purity of desire and penance, staples of the tradition coming down from the Vedas. The tantras and the eroticism of medieval Indian culture challenge the fiction of an austere and incorporeal paradigm of Indian civilisation suggested by deifiers of the great Indian tradition in the last 100 years led by savants such as Aurobindo, Coomaraswamy, KCB and others. For high elite Sanskritic cultures exist along with common Prakrit, Pali and Apabhransha mind; the pre-English vernaculars of India.
What is representative of the Indian spirit asks Dharmedra Goel, a Pandit Raj Jagannath beating about the old poetic conventions in Sanskrit in the Mughal court? Or the new emerging poetry of Guru Gobind in Punjab, and in Avadhi speaking areas by Rahim? For my personal identity, wrote Goel, Agra and Ghalib, Guru Gobind and Amritsar are as much a part of our world view as Ramayana. I, he wrote, would like to explore and consolidate my own world-view not only from Sanskrit classics, but from the rock etchings in central India and Mirzapur, not only from the temples of Kanchi and Bodhgaya, or the painting and sculpture of Ajanta and Khajuraho and Konark, but also paintings by Amrita Shergill, M.F Hussain Jamini Roy, and music by Tansen or Ravi Shankar. These are mine, and their images and memories have echoed and made them my own, this is the way to live.
Reading this wonderful argument that destabilises the notion of a homogenous Hinduism, we wonder who and what culture/Hinduism – as a public philosophy that legitimises political power – represents? For which strand, which class, and which sub-community does it speak? It is only then that we will be able to understand what obligations to our country and our culture we have. We thought we had understood these. We were wrong.
But this is a ‘New India’. We have to ask questions and seek answers afresh.
Featured illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
This article was first published on The Wire.